Today’s story lays bare two characters united by redemption — with a side of tea.
Discourse on Fillies
[Drama] [Slice of Life] • 15,532 words
Diamond Tiara always knew that someday she’d be invited to dine with the Princess at the Royal Palace. She didn’t think it would happen like this.
But she’s going to sit there and be polite and smile and not be bothered by all the ways this is all wrong. Because that’s what good fillies do, and Diamond Tiara is a good filly now.
FROM THE CURATORS: This is one of those stories that was turning heads well before it reached our reading queue. “Having seen no fewer than ten journals in a row signal boosting and praising this story, I knew it was only a matter of time before it ended up here,” Present Perfect noted, as AugieDog pointed out its heavily upvoted suggestion in our story recommendation thread. And while not all of us appreciated the story equally, we found a story whose ideas were big enough to justify the acclaim. “The author needs some special sort of commendation for giving us the idea of The Princess by Macavallo, then for making it be the book Diamond Tiara has based her entire life upon, then for making Machiavelli work in an Equestrian context,” AugieDog said.
However, what really turned our heads was the exemplary work on the story’s two main characters. “This really excels at framing a child’s concerns about the world, but the big thing right is the interplay between Diamond Tiara and Luna, of the tribulations shared by the rich and actual royalty, and of how the scope of their differences varies exponentially,” Present Perfect said. AugieDog agreed: “The way the author handles these two characters is what’s making me nominate it.” Even the story’s critics found that powerful. “I bounced off this story,” Soge said, “but the parallels between Tiara and Luna are interesting, and her view of the world, particularly her comparisons between the rich and the nobles in the context of MLP’s world, are nothing short of fascinating.”
Also held up for acclaim were the story’s heartfelt moments. “This was angling for my upvote as early as the ‘Feelings are like muscles’ speech, and the little profundities just kept on coming,” Horizon said. “The dig about uselessness and Luna’s response to it and the very adult handling of DT’s outburst (on both sides) was just amazing. ‘Trying always counts’ was so on-point I think I accidentally stabbed myself with it.” That was a consequence of the beautiful framing of the premise, Present Perfect argued: “Two characters in a state of reformation — ‘state’, because reform isn’t something you achieve and then go do something else after — trying to help one another? Brilliant, and a fantastic use of everything we learned in Crusaders of the Lost Mark.” It all added up, as Horizon said, to a winner: “In between picking the right characters for the discussion, using them faithfully, and teaching me something about Earth history, this succeeds on multiple levels.”
Read on for our author interview, in which Daedalus Aegle discusses radiant inventors, muddy Machiavellis, and the missing directions of Norway.
Give us the standard biography.
I was born in Northern Norway, and remained there for my brief yet eventful time as the bearer of the title of World’s Youngest Person. In the time since, I’ve moved south, then back north, then back south again. Since Norway only acknowledges two of the cardinal directions this means I am very well-traveled. I first got into geek things when I got my first Discworld novel at the age of 10, and things have only spiraled further out of control since.
I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. When I was 16 I wrote an unreadably bad fantasy novel, in accordance with custom. I burned out spectacularly in high school, clawed my way to a diploma a couple of years later, and went on to get an MA in English Lit at the university.
I was at the university when MLP:FIM began. I noticed the first episode when it came out and people passed the link around online. I watched it, I was amused, and then I put it aside. Then I slowly came back and watched some more, and began to get sucked into fandom like I’d never been before.
It was “Magical Mystery Cure” that finally made me try my hand at fanfiction. The handful of cryptic hints we had gotten by then about this guy “Star Swirl the Bearded” gave me some ideas, and he’s been following me around ever since.
A result of this was that I came to fanfiction backwards. I started with university lit studies, where we only read canonized classics, and went from there to the raw popular fiction realm of fanfic. The shift was jarring, to say the least.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
I’m a great fan of mythology. The strong mythological roots of the show is probably a major reason it appealed to me early on. I also hate coming up with names and titles, so I grabbed an already-established name that appealed to me.
Daedalus is of course the genius inventor from Greek mythology. He is best known for making the wings that his son Icarus used to fly too close to the sun, whereupon the wings melted and Icarus plummeted to his death. But that was only one of many genius inventions that ended badly for him. He also built the Labyrinth where the Minotaur was contained, and as a result he was imprisoned himself so he couldn’t give up its secrets. There are others.
Basically, Daedalus was too clever for his own good, and I feel a certain connection to that.
I added “Aegle” because just “Daedalus” is already taken everywhere on the Internet. Aegle is also a name from Greek mythology, meaning something like “radiance” or “splendor”, and it is my go-to name when I play a Paladin.
My original username on Fimfiction was “Daedelean”, but I changed it when I finally accepted that no-one had any idea how to pronounce it (day-dee-lee-un) or what it was supposed to mean. It came from a story idea I had many years ago and never wrote, where there was a cult of mad scientists who revered Daedalus as a patron saint of technology. As the followers of Daedalus, they were Daedeleans.
Who’s your favorite pony?
Princess Luna. Shocking, right? But it would be hard to deny it, given that the roots of my longest stories are all in “Luna Eclipsed”. But I’m lucky enough that I liked everyone in the mane cast from the start, and dislike almost no-one in the show.
My love of mythology strikes here too. Like the great characters of mythology, Princess Luna is an archetypal cosmic figure that still manages to be a relatable character. She might not be the main character, but she is arguably the central figure of the show’s worldbuilding. Her life story is the great cosmic drama that the show springs out of. Without her, there is no MLP:FIM.
I also think I struck character gold with Star Swirl the Bearded and Clover the Clever (who are technically characters in the show). Both of them are fountains of wit and charm on their own, and they constantly push each other to new heights of madcap hijinx. The big challenge for me is trying to keep up with them.
What’s your favorite episode?
“Luna Eclipsed.” It’s hilarious, and touching, and earnestly hopeful. Everything that makes up Luna’s character arc is there. It’s hard now to remember exactly when I went from watching the show casually to becoming a devoted fan. But it was around the start of season 2, and that episode may have been the one that sealed the deal.
And it was the first ever mention of Star Swirl the Bearded, the greatest wizard no-one has ever heard of.
After “Luna Eclipsed,” “Lesson Zero” was always a very close second, but it wasn’t until “Crusaders of the Lost Mark” that another episode seriously challenged them.
What do you get from the show?
Quite a lot. For starters it’s just plain enjoyable to watch. I love the characters and their relationships.I really enjoy the diversity of them and the fact that they are both strongly defined on the surface and yet surprisingly deep.
I love the fantasy influence, and the fact that small town slice of life plots exist side by side with epic battles against cosmic evil forces without either feeling out of place. I’ve actually learned a whole lot about storytelling from it.
And I like the fact that after six years their lessons only seem to be getting deeper and more complex, to the point where they’re teaching things I still need to learn as an adult.
What do you want from life?
I would like for the world to be a more fair and understanding place. I would like for everyone to have the peace and stability they need to grow and thrive. And I would like to understand how people work, and tell stories that make others feel that they understand each other a little better as a result.
Why do you write?
Because the stories want to be told, and if I don’t write them no-one will.
Also because it’s easier than the alternative. Writing is grueling, painful, bloody work. Not writing is worse.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
I believe that there is only one single genuine rule of writing, and it is this: you’re allowed to do anything, so long as you can make it work.
Now, as a piece of practical advice this is completely useless. It doesn’t help you make anything work. But the point is that all the other rules of writing aren’t actually “rules”, in the sense that you need to follow them to be good. They are aides to make the writing easier, but if you can make do without them then you are allowed to do so.
Literature is infinitely flexible. There’s room for Hemingway, and Virginia Woolf, and Haruki Murakami, and Jorge Luis Borges. But whatever you do, even if you follow every rule to the letter, what matters is that you still have to make sure it works.
Another point, and this is more a theory than a piece of advice — some years back I asked myself “what exactly is it that makes something a story?” I thought about it for a while, and settled on this: “Things happen to characters, and they have a chance to learn something from it.”
That’s pretty fundamental. I suspect even that is open for debate. But it’s given me something to aim for, and a greater understanding of the old chestnut that writing is about holding a mirror up to life. No matter what else happens in a story, ultimately it has to be about people.
You’ve commented that Luna and Diamond Tiara together are greater than the sum of their parts. What gave you the idea to write a story about them both?
The short version is that it just turned out that the two of them had a whole lot to say to each other.
Actually the idea seemed very small at first. I had just seen “Crusaders of the Lost Mark”, and been introduced to Spoiled Rich, and I noticed that in “Do Princesses Dream of Magic Sheep?”, Spoiled and DT are both absent and we see Filthy Rich spending the night in a house that is not his own. From that I got the basic idea for Luna asking Diamond Tiara about where she was during the Tantabus incident. It seemed like a good and simple idea, and I thought I’d write a couple thousand words and publish in a few days.
It’s one of the great clichés of writing, but it’s really true: your characters have lives of their own, and you can’t really control what they’re going to do. Diamond Tiara and Luna are both intelligent, perceptive ponies who are very good with words and very good at getting under other ponies’ skin. They’re also both ponies with an interest in social rank, in how they relate to the society around them, and they’re both kind of traumatized by that. Once I brought them together I quickly realized there was a whole lot more going on here, and that neither of them was going to stop until they’d torn themselves apart.
It ended up taking seven months to do it justice.
Why do you think the fandom has reacted so differently to their redemptions?
This had slipped by me, actually. I was quite surprised when I noticed several commenters and reviewers saying that Diamond Tiara’s redemption in the show had been unsatisfying and that I had done a better job of it. I was flattered, but surprised, since I loved “Crusaders of the Lost Mark” and had no problems with it at all.
To apply my own terrible advice, there was a lot in that episode that arguably broke the normal rules of good storytelling. They introduced Spoiled Rich, a character who had never even been hinted at before but who is suddenly supposed to have been there all along, and used her to completely undo five years of Diamond Tiara’s characterization in a single episode. This is not something anyone would ever recommend doing in a story. But they made it work, and for me that’s what ultimately matters.
That said, I can certainly see why people would have a problem with it. The show is bound to a certain simplicity. Almost all the stories are single episodes, and everything has to be resolved by the end of the episode. So whenever they step up to deal with deep character issues, the final resolution is going to happen very quickly, and risks feeling very unsatisfying and unrealistic as a result.
I think ultimately the big question is this: should you judge the show by your standards, or should you be willing to accept it on its own terms? How much of each is appropriate?
I do hope we get to see more of Diamond Tiara struggling to adjust to a new life in the show. If nothing else, it would be a great shame if her story simply ended, if they had nothing more to do with her now that she’s not openly antagonistic to the Crusaders.
With the story comparing and contrasting Luna and DT, how do Celestia and Silver Spoon fit into this? With the ending reconciling one but not the other, do you think there might be more left to say?
There’s always more to say about everything, I suppose. I think the story did a good job exploring how important Silver Spoon is to DT as well as Celestia to Luna, even if they don’t appear in the flesh.
Of the four of them I think Silver Spoon is the odd one out. She doesn’t get to speak directly in the story, and her perspective would likely have been the most different from all the others. Of the four of them, Silver Spoon is the only one we can imagine doesn’t have any history with the anxieties of power and status. She’s not a leader and she doesn’t have to prove herself. She can just be a pony.
Silver Spoon was unwavering in her loyalty to Diamond Tiara because she wanted her friend to be happy, and for no other reason. She understood that what DT needed wasn’t a vassal, but a friend. While Silver Spoon did finally break from DT when she went too far, DT also came back to her. I think now DT understands why.
How do you square such opposing philosophies as the core optimism of Equestria and the core cynicism of Machiavelli?
A large part of the story is about Luna attempting to answer that question for Diamond Tiara’s benefit (and her own). These two characters have a Machiavellian strain in them. Luna has it because she actually is a Princess, and because she lived through the same times Machiavelli (or Macavallo) did, and Diamond Tiara has it because of her upbringing and her social position. This is part of who they are. But somehow they both need to find a way to make peace with an Equestria that cannot conceive of those values.
This is not an easy thing to do. The story doesn’t really promise that it’s even possible. There’s a moment in the story when Luna wonders how Equestria would have responded to her if Nightmare Moon had won. Well, Luna apparently didn’t know that we got to see exactly that in “The Cutie Re-Mark”, and there it seemed like Machiavelli was right.
But while you can’t get far by being wilfully oblivious to uncomfortable facts, you do need to find some way to heal and move forward. The discussion about Machiavelli doesn’t ask “is this really true?”, but rather “can we find a better, more uplifting perspective on this while still acknowledging its insights?”
Another point is that MLP mostly concerns itself with direct personal relationships. The Prince is all about impersonal relationships. So one big shift in the way of thinking about it is this: Can we think of The Prince not as a guide to human behavior on an impersonal, big-picture level, but on a personal level instead? What if we think of it as a look into the mind of its author, and how he had been shaped by the world around him? What does that tell us about human behavior? And what does that tell us about Princess Luna and Diamond Tiara?
A lot of research clearly went into this, such as the context of Machiavelli’s patronage. Any other historical tidbits that might enhance readers’ appreciation of the story?
To anyone at all interested in the history aspect I highly recommend this series of blog posts by Ada Palmer, which explains Machiavelli and the world around him in entertaining and sometimes even heartrending ways: http://www.exurbe.com/?p=1429
As for something specific… There is a letter that Machiavelli wrote to a friend during his first year in exile, which is notable because it’s the first place he mentions that he has begun writing ‘a little book on princes’. But he also talks about his day to day life of managing his estate and doing business (or arguing) with his neighbours. It’s a very personal piece of writing, and gives a very different impression than the scheming manipulator we’re used to thinking about.
In one paragraph he describes how, when he returns home from the village at the end of each day, he takes off the muddy clothes of a country farmer and puts on the finery he wore as a diplomat. He goes into his library and spends the evening hours reading the classical thinkers, imagining himself speaking to them directly, asking them questions, and hearing their answers. “And for four hours of time I forget all my worries, and I am no longer afraid of poverty, or of death.”
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
There are a lot of things going on in this story, but I think most of all it’s about trying to understand ourselves and each other just a little bit better, in the hopes that this will make life a little bit easier for everyone. I think we all need that, and MLP does a great job of it.
Big thanks to the RCL for adding my story, and to everyone for reading.